Barb Chidley is the Neighborhood Specialist for the City of Rockford. A Dixon native, she taught English at Auburn High School for six years before moving to her current role. In a recent conversation at her office in City Hall, Barb talked about creative ways to meet your neighbors and network your neighborhood.
In an era of polarized social media and doorbell cameras, there sometimes just seems to be hesitancy or even fear at the neighborhood level. What do you think is behind that?
We grew up when life was quiet and peaceful and you could run around outside until the street lights came on, and you knew everybody in the neighborhood and all your mom had to do was yell out the front door. Where I grew up, we rode our bikes all over town. But even in smaller towns now, kids aren’t walking to school like they used to. Even just traffic alone — that’s one of the things I hear the most from people is about traffic safety. But there are so many other things going on now that people are unsure of. I think there’s fear of that. If you’re not used to having to worry about gun violence, then even one thing that might happen related to gun violence is scary.
With the decline of local journalism in so many communities, it feels like people really don’t know what’s going on. And then they turn to social media.
I think social media has been our downfall. I used to bring in social media posts to my classroom at Auburn and we would dissect some of this as examples of the exaggerative stuff, and how not to communicate if you want to convince somebody to buy into what you’re saying. I also think the level of connection you get through social media seems like it’s vast. But it’s not deep. There’s nothing that can replace the face-to-face.
Which is the argument for getting to know your neighbors, right?
I find it fascinating that if we are sitting face-to-face there are things you could say to me about your beliefs or values. And as somebody I am getting to know as a full human, I am more likely to actually listen and take it as part of the whole context. Whereas when we see those things on their own on Facebook, all of a sudden we are polarized.
Our church is huge into this and we want to see neighborhoods networked. What are you seeing people try that is working?
(Here, Barb references a recent neighborhood gathering in my neighborhood, on Bradley Road. The main organizer contacted her beforehand for advice.)
She could name who all of her neighbors were all the way down the street. There was this intentionality on her part, getting out there and seeing people out in their yards and introducing herself. That’s where things are really powerfully happening.
I just met with a neighborhood group that started as a neighborhood watch group. We’ve gotten away from neighborhood watches because they are a little more fear-based. The big thing is they are reactive and what we want to be is more proactive. When the de facto leader of that group came to me … what was beautiful was that he wanted to move beyond that. They had already started connecting.
He’s been intentional about walking the neighborhood. Sometimes if you have a dog, it’s a whole lot easier. The dog walkers definitely get to know each other. It’s the people who don’t have dogs to walk who might need some additional ideas.
We are a couple of generations into a pattern where it is normal not to know your neighbors. And that used to be very abnormal.
There are legitimately people who are incredibly private. I think you make attempts. You never stop waving. I had someone say to me, “I just want to get involved in my neighborhood. What can I do?” And she was already naturally doing this—walking her dog, greeting people. She told me about one particular person in her neighborhood. Every time she said hello, the person would not respond. Until one day she finally said “Hello” back.
It can be difficult. It can be frustrating. People can seem gruff, and we can take that personally. But it’s not personal. If somebody legitimately wants to be left alone and all you do is just wave hello and they don’t wave back, oh, well. You’ve been neighborly. But when they see that you’re consistent, they might start thinking, maybe that is sincere. Maybe something will start to form from that. If people truly just want to be left alone, then that’s all we can do. But if they have a dog and it happens to get out and they’re not home, you can darn well bet that they really hope their neighbor is going to somehow help—at least call them or text them and say, “Your dog is out. How do we keep it from getting hit on this busy street?”
I think that more often than not, people just want to find what that happy medium is. Along with the polarization that social media can create, I think we’ve also kind of gone to extremes—from, “I don’t want you in my business at all, and that means we can’t have any contact” to “Hey, we’re like BFFs.” There’s a lot of middle ground there. People can determine to continue to just start with those greetings. Say, “Hi, I’m so-and-so and I haven’t met you yet.” You’ll figure out where that balance is.
On your website, you mention how small habits make a difference. Can you name a few of those?
Even just waving, saying hello. I make little comments. If I’m out walking and somebody steps out and they’ve got beautiful landscaping, I will say it. I’ve done that when I’m driving down a street and somebody’s out there and tending to their flowers — “I love your garden!” Things like that can be intimidating for people who aren’t used to it, but at the same time, people are always so responsive.
In my neighborhood, we have a closed Facebook group. People definitely interact in that group and I think it’s because they feel safe. It’s a closed group and it’s supposed to only be for people who live in the neighborhood. There are people who used to live in the neighborhood, or children of older parents who live in the neighborhood, but there is definitely a feeling of “we can share” because we know this is specifically about our neighborhood. And it’s different than NextDoor. On NextDoor, people elsewhere can see a lot of that stuff and engage.
Now people are sharing things that are wonderful and special and lovely. And I don’t think it was just with COVID where it became intentional. … I think there’s a level of celebration—We love our neighborhood and this is why. A former student of mine actually lives on a very prominent corner in my neighborhood. He moved in, the house is painted now, the landscaping is gorgeous. And somebody in the neighborhood wrote a card to him and put it on his front door that just said, “I appreciate so much what you’ve done with your landscaping. It’s so beautiful. I love driving by there every day.” And he was so pleased by it that he posted a photo of that letter in the Facebook group saying “Thank you so much.”
I know of one Facebook group in a different neighborhood that decided, “We’re just going to introduce all the dogs in the neighborhood.” People bond over their pet children.
And hang out on your front yard. Sit out there with a drink at the end of the day and say hello to people as they walk by. One of my neighbors actually redid her front porch so she could sit out there. And she puts out water for the dogs. She doesn’t have a dog, but then she knows that if somebody’s walking by and the dog stops to drink, then she can say, “Hi. Isn’t this beautiful weather we’re having?” I know it sounds kind of trite, but it’s super simple. Then you start to recognize people and it feels good. And a lot of things follow from that.
What ideas have you seen work well for neighborhood gatherings?
Sometimes it can take a while for things to catch on. The one thing that you must do is not just rely on social media and emails, but actually get out there and go door-to-door with a flyer. When I go out and I’m putting out an invitation, I literally will tape it to the front window or to the door handle (never a painted surface). My philosophy is, if it says “You’re invited” or “Please join us” or “We’d love to see you,” that headline will capture somebody’s attention as they go to grab it.
And we get fearful of this, but if you do knock on that door, and say, “I’m so and so and I would love for you to come to this event” … then I would feel more comfortable walking into a room by myself with a familiar face there that I could wave to.
I was a language teacher, so I started thinking about the language that we use. If I tell someone that they are welcome to join me, that’s giving them permission. If I tell someone that I would love for them to join me, I feel like that’s a more powerful invitation. Not just “you’re welcome,” but “you’re wanted. I really want you to come.”
What else makes a gathering feel inviting?
When something is visible. When it’s out front. Driveway, front lawn, front porch. Coffee on the front porch is a really cool thing. It’s nice when you’re doing something outdoors like that. People can kind of check it out first. They can drive or walk by. And you can say, “Hey, want some coffee? Come join us!”
Honestly, I think that trying to connect on that block level is really where a lot of the magic does happen.
With a neighborhood event, if you get several people working together can that be more effective?
Sure, but that can be tricky too. Have you ever seen that little video snippet about starting a movement? Enthusiasm is catching. So one person could decide, I’m going to go meet every neighbor on my block.
So I think one person can certainly do this. It’s cheap to go get some soda and chips and just say, “Come on over to my yard and let’s get to know each other.”
Are there approaches you would advise against?
The one thing that consistently does not work is just meetings. If you’ve got a reason—say, people are concerned about crime and they want to come together over that, then absolutely. But after a while, a meeting is business. And then it feels like an obligation. And there are other people in the neighborhood who aren’t interested in the business end of it at all. But they would be interested in getting to know the couple of neighbors around them. Maybe they’ve got little kids and they don’t have time to go to that meeting, but it sure is nice to know who these folks are because then I know they’re going to help keep an eye out for my kids’ safety.
I also think it’s a layered approach. Sure, let’s try a meeting because there is some business we should do. But then let’s have a block party, or let’s just do a Friday after work in the driveway—“Come join us for chit chat.” But also I’m going to be out walking and I’m going to greet people as I see them. All of those things add up to a much more connected community.
As you get a neighborhood networked, people are more likely to want to stay, right? So it brings stability and confidence and all kinds of good things.
I would have a really hard time if I needed to start brand new when I know I have incredible neighbors now. Now when somebody moves in, I know I’m going to make a beeline to introduce myself. Let’s get contact information and everything. It changes everything. It makes it hard to leave.
We call it building social capital to make these kinds of connections. There is some research out there that would suggest that is the one thing that across the board can improve safety, reduce crime, increase health and well-being both physical and emotional, and even will boost economic development and educational achievement. We build social capital in two ways, both bonding and bridging. So when you are right there on the block with each other, that is bonding. Bridging is maybe to the city or to your alderman or whatever resources and support folks need. It’s making sure that people know those connections and have those kinds of supports as well. So when those connections are made, it’s powerful.
For a church like ours, what would you like people to know about what you and your office do?
I can provide absolute support for anybody who wants to host something. Advice, feedback, I can help people facilitate. Sometimes people already have really great ideas. But sometimes if they feel like they’re not the expert, then they’re not sure they’re doing the right thing. I’m happy to give that affirmation and bounce ideas off of them. If people aren’t sure who to call and they need some kind of connection, I can also really try to get you the right connections as well. Community partners, resources, support on a personal level all the way up to the city level. I work very closely with the alderman, with the police department, the community service police officers in particular. I work very closely with other departments like Public Works. Sometimes we want more direct connections and I can provide some of that.
I’m basically just here to help make sure people are connected with whomever and whatever it is they need. I think sometimes people don’t think there is a resource out there. So I would encourage folks to get in touch. If you’re dreaming of something, don’t assume there is not a way to make it happen, or that there is not money or support. Because there may very well be, and I’m happy to try to work through that with you.